Best New Physical Books and E-Books at the Library: August 17, 2021

  • Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So (physical book available at the library; short stories): Generations of Cambodian immigrants and their children bring their heritage and culture to America’s melting pot in Afterparties, a bold and incisive collection of short stories by the late writer Anthony Veasna So. There’s a mesmerizing quality to these nine beautifully brash, interconnected stories filled with feisty, flawed characters living in central California. Each tale touches on themes of history, family, sexuality and identity, topics that are inextricably tied to all cultures. In “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” Sothy is the Cambodian owner of a donut store, which she’s named Chuck’s because she thought the American-sounding name would attract customers. She is haunted by memories of the concentration camps she survived during the Cambodian genocide by the Khmer Rouge. However, a strange new source of dread appears in the form of a stranger who bears an unusual resemblance to Sothy’s ex-husband. As Sothy and her two American-born teenage daughters wonder about this stranger, they also come to a new understanding of their own complex identities as Cambodian Americans. In several stories, So handles sexuality and religion unabashedly to illuminate the paradoxes of life. In “Maly, Maly, Maly,” teen narrator Ves reflects on his and his cousin Maly’s explicit sexual adventures amid preparations for the celebration of Maly’s dead mother’s reincarnation. And in “The Monks,” Rithy, who appears as Maly’s boy toy in “Maly, Maly, Maly,” is confined to a temple for a week to ensure his father’s smooth transition into the afterlife, making Rithy’s loyal duty to his unworthy father sound more like he is doing time. The author died in December 2020, leaving behind this collection as an important legacy that challenges stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans. Respecting the challenges of history while simultaneously giving voice to generations, these refreshingly unsterilized stories transcend race, culture and time. Insightful and energetic, Afterparties‘ tales about the complex communion of history and identity will intrigue fans of Chang-rae Lee’s My Year Abroad and Souvankham Thammavongsa’s How to Pronounce Knife.
  • Everything I Have Is Yours by Eleanor Henderson (physical book available at the library; memoir): How many of us married people really thought about what we promised in our wedding vows? We probably said that we would be united with our beloved “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” but we recited the words as a matter of tradition. Eleanor Henderson made those promises, too, but she’s made good on them. In her incredible memoir, Everything I Have Is Yours: A Marriage, she describes life with her husband, Aaron, and his perplexing array of physical and mental illnesses. Everything I Have Is Yours goes back and forth in time from when the young couple met as artsy kids in Florida to their present-day marriage with two kids and a mortgage. Along the way, Henderson rises in her career as an author and professor while taking on caregiving duties for aging parents, young children and, increasingly, her chronically ill spouse. Aaron struggles to find his footing career-wise and faces a number of mental health challenges, including addiction and suicidality. It’s clear, however, that Henderson and their children are enamored with Aaron. This family has as much love as it does pain. Readers should be aware that passages about incest are recurrent throughout the book, as well as discussions of suicide attempts. The descriptions of Aaron’s strange illnesses are vivid and unambiguous (including lesions, rashes and bleeding), and parasites, real or imagined, make many appearances. In many ways, this memoir is a compelling medical mystery, and anyone who is interested in the disputed existence of Morgellons disease will have lots to chew on here. Ultimately, this memoir is about the depth of the marital bond. Readers may wonder, why is Henderson still enduring all this? But of course, we know the answer: She deeply loves her husband. Everything I Have Is Yours is not a traditional love story, but it is a love story–one as heart-wrenching as it is heart-filling. Reading it will prompt you to give the meaning of “in sickness and in health” a good, long thought.
  • Edge Case by YZ Chin (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; literary fiction): YZ Chin’s Edge Case is one of the first great novels to examine the grinding effect of U.S. anti-immigration policies during the Trump administration. Edwina and her husband, Marlin, are in the U.S. on H-1B work visas. Both are from Malaysia; she is ethnic Chinese, and he is Chinese Indian. A tester at a New York City tech startup, Edwina is the only woman–and what seems like the only minority employee–among men so entitled, they can’t even see their racism and misogyny. Software engineer Marlin was planning to get his green card (which isn’t green, by the way), become a citizen and then sponsor his parents to come to the United States. But this will never happen, as Marlin’s beloved father dies early in the book. This calamity unhinges Marlin, and he leaves Edwina. In the aftermath, she struggles to understand his disappearance via messages to an unseen therapist-in-training. Compounding Edwina’s anguish over Marlin’s abandonment are her anxieties about her immigration status, her looks and daily racial insults. These barbs are too overt to be called microaggressions, and they come not just from her co-workers but also from police. (They accuse Edwina of drinking booze in the open when she’s sipping tea from a cup.) She remembers when dark-skinned Marlin was pulled out of line at the airport and hustled into an office for reasons no one knows. These affronts carry an extra cargo of anxiety that goes beyond the usual hurt of racism, since Edwina knows that if she or Marlin puts a foot wrong, they could be deported. Chin, the author of the story collection Though I Get Home, is superb at describing the tumult of a woman being psychologically knocked about like a pachinko ball. Every chapter bears witness to Edwina’s pain, befuddlement and sheer exhaustion, while also revealing her snarky sense of humor, resourcefulness, tenaciousness and capacity for love. Edge Case shows what can happen to ordinary people when they’re caught up in systems beyond their control.
  • Gone for Good by Joanna Schaffhausen (physical book available at the library; mystery): Annalisa Vega shouldn’t be investigating the latest murder linked to a serial killer, dubbed by the press as the Lovelorn Killer, who last struck in her Chicago suburb 20 years ago. Her father was the original investigator in the case and her boyfriend during her teenage years, Colin, was the son of the seventh murder victim. But Annalisa’s a detective herself now, and, perhaps seeing this as a way to help her dad exorcise his demons from never having solved the case, she dives headlong into Joanna Schaffhausen’s multilayered mystery, Gone for Good. Annalisa quickly learns the latest victim, local grocery store manager Grace Harper, was investigating the original spate of killings with an amateur sleuth club called the Grave Diggers. The similarities between her death and those of the earlier victims–all were found bound and gagged, dead on the floor of their homes–convinces Vega that Grace was closer to solving the case than even she might have thought, which prompted the killer to come out of hiding. Schaffhausen, who has a doctorate in psychology and previously worked in broadcast journalism, uses her expertise to delve into the minds of her characters, extracting their hopes, desires and fears in equal measure. The author brilliantly explores Annalisa’s emotional connections with the characters around her. She’s not only been reunited with Colin for the first time in years, but her partner on the case is her ex-husband, Nick, who is also a detective. Both situations prompt a flood of emotions that threaten to cloud Annalisa’s judgment. Chapters told from Grace’s perspective are cunningly interspersed with Annalisa’s traditional gumshoe detective work, yielding additional insights along the way. While Schaffhausen throws in a few red herrings, all the clues are there for readers if they pay keen attention. And even if readers should figure things out ahead of Annalisa, the action-packed ending and final twist are more than worth seeing Gone for Good to its finish.
  • The King of Infinite Space by Lyndsay Faye (physical book available at the library; literary fiction): The author of several historical mysteries and a wild reworking of Jane Eyre (the Edgar Award-nominated Jane Steele), Lyndsay Faye brings considerable skills and irreverent humor to The King of Infinite Space, a contemporary reimagining of Hamlet set in and around a New York City theater. Benjamin Dane is both fabulously wealthy and kept on just this side of sanity by a slew of medications. He is the son of Jackson and Trudy, owners of the prestigious New World’s Stage. After Jackson dies under mysterious circumstances, Trudy immediately marries her brother-in-law, Claude. In mourning and struggling with his suicidal impulses, Benjamin uncovers a videotape from a paranoid-seeming Jackson, who names Claude as his murderer. Distraught, Benjamin reaches out to Horatio Patel, a friend from graduate school who left New York after the two men had a one-night stand. Horatio returns from England to console his friend and aid in Benjamin’s plan to denounce his mother and uncle at the theater’s annual fundraising gala. Benjamin’s ex-girlfriend, Lia Brahms, wants to help, but her job as a florist’s assistant keeps her too busy. Faye’s knowledge of Shakespeare extends well past Hamlet, as The King of Infinite Space name-checks characters from several of the Bard’s plays, from Ariel, the all-knowing doorman at the New World; to the meddling event coordinator Robin Goodfellow; to the three weird sisters who manage the flower shop where Lia is employed and who specialize in bouquets that heal, cure and maybe even alter the future. Lush and magical, thoughtful and provocative, The King of Infinite Space is a remarkable achievement, staying true to Shakespeare’s tragic play in ways that will surprise and delight while reveling in neurodivergence, queer attraction and quantum physics. Though the buildup is slow and Benjamin’s philosophical meanderings occasionally digressive, this is a novel to stick with for its rewards of a surprising plot and Faye’s delightful storytelling.
  • The Arbornaut by Meg Lowman (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; memoir): Meg Lowman, known as “Canopy Meg,” has a big public presence, and her latest memoir demonstrates why: She excels at bringing the natural world to life in language. The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us takes readers around the world, from the forests of New England to the hills of Scotland, from the jungles of Australia to the riverbanks of the Amazon. It also tells the story of a passionate young naturalist whose childhood collections of wildflowers and bird eggs were supplanted by mosses during adolescence until, during college, she discovered the enduring love of her life: trees. Specifically, the tops of trees, which have been historically understudied even though they compose a vibrant ecosystem that Lowman refers to as the “eighth continent” of the world. Lowman’s driving curiosity finds a productive outlet in the scientific process, which she ably describes for lay readers. Her research is full of life, energy, intelligence and determination. It’s impossible to reader about it without wanting to examine the natural world more closely! While reading The Arbornaut, I found myself staring out of my second-story windows, trying to discern whether the leaves of the “upper canopy” of my Midwestern trees differed from those visible at ground level. This is exactly the kind of response Lowman hopes for. She is dedicated to getting everyday folks into the canopies, which she argues can advance scientific discovery (more eyes collecting more data) and benefit the planet (more people dedicated to ecological preservation). Across multiple projects, Lowman’s reputation has grown within and beyond her discipline, and in this memoir, she also attends to the impact of gender on her professional experience. After detailing multiple instances of unwanted attention, ranging from innuendos to attempted assault, Lowman describes herself as a “tall poppy,” a flower that others try to cut down because it stands out. And yet, she persists, leading expeditions to the Amazon, collaborating with scientists and citizens alike and sharing her results in both technical journals and delightful memoirs. She deserves her celebrity. The Arbornaut is a book to reach for if you, like Lowman, love the natural world and want to live in it fully.
  • The Gallery of Miracles and Madness by Charlie English (physical book available at the library; European history): In The Gallery of Miracles and Madness: Insanity, Modernism, and Hitler’s War on Art, Charlie English, former head of international news at the Guardian, tells the tale of two art critics. The first, Hans Prinzhorn, was an art historian and psychiatrist. Employed by the Heidelberg University Psychiatric Hospital in 1919, he was given the task of cataloging and evaluating the patients’ artwork for diagnostic purposes. Prinzhorn quickly realized that these works were more than expressions of mental illness. They were art, filled with life’s horror, humanity and energy. He set about collecting more artworks from different clinics and asylums and, in 1922, published the influential book Artistry of the Mentally Ill. The second critic was a self-taught Austrian artist named Adolf Hitler. English explains that Hitler primarily considered himself an artist and thought his greatest work would be the German people. Creating “pure” German art would be key to the success of that project. Yet Hitler could not say what German art was; he could only say what it was not. And it definitely was not produced by people who were mentally ill. To prove that point, Hitler ordered an exhibition of “degenerate art,” including works from Prinzhorn’s collection, to show how “corrupt” and “insane” modern art had become. For Hitler, an unworthy life was as disposable and valueless as unworthy art. Consequently, he went on to orchestrate the murder of tens of thousands of those whose lives he deemed “unworthy,” including people who were disabled and chronically ill–and at least two dozen of the Prinzhorn artists. This is not an abstract book of ideas. The battle between these two views of art was, literally, a matter of life and death, so English uses the life and death of Franz Karl Buhler, the most accomplished of Prinzhorn’s artists, to frame his story. From master ironsmith to psychiatric patient to discovered artist, all the way to the terrifying details that led to his murder by carbon monoxide gassing, Buhler’s life and death illuminate the void at the heart of Nazism. The Gallery of Miracles and Madness is profoundly heartbreaking, unexpectedly redeeming and immensely important.
  • Both Sides Now by Peyton Thomas (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; young adult fiction): Finch Kelly feels most at home on the debate stage, and he knows winning the national debate championship could be his ticket to achieving his dreams: admission to Georgetown University and the first step toward becoming the first transgender member of Congress. But his family’s finances are falling apart, his feelings for his debate partner, Jonah, are growing more and more complicated and the topic for the championship debate will require him to argue against his own human rights. As the pressure mounts, Finch begins to lose confidence in everything he once believed. In this sharp and emotional first novel, author Peyton Thomas explores the queer high school experience through Finch, who longs to look more like the teenage boy he is and whose feelings for Jonah are causing him to question his sexual orientation. The novel also confronts racism through Jonah’s experience as a Filipino American who deals with microaggressions from debate judges and his gorgeous, Juilliard-bound boyfriend. Add in the socioeconomic woes that are never far from Finch’s thoughts, as his parents grapple with unemployment and his debate opponents’ families write huge checks to prestigious colleges, and Both Sides Now is jampacked with timely issues. Thomas doesn’t pull any punches on difficult topics and never once reduces his characters to objects of pity. Instead, he depicts teenagers who are working hard to find their places in a world that h as thrown obstacle after obstacle in their paths. The novel balances serious political conversations and scenes of moving emotional hardship with moments of comedy and a spirit of true camaraderie and respect between Finch and Jonah. Teens who participate in their schools’ debate or Model United Nations programs will especially appreciate the book’s detailed exploration of contemporary political issues, but Thomas’ witty prose, strong pacing and knack for creating vivid, dimensional characters have broad appeal.
  • Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (physical book available at the library; noir): Silvia Moreno-Garcia has a knack for re-envisioning familiar, even comforting genre territory in vital new ways, something she proved with her last novel, the incredible Mexican Gothic. In that book, Moreno-Garcia turned her gift for evolving classic tropes toward gothic tales full of spooky houses and spookier families. For her next trick, the author moves into pulp adventure territory for a novel that evokes the best conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s. Set in the wake of the brutal murders of dozens of student protestors in Mexico City in June 1971, Velvet Was the Night follows two lost characters in a world that seems determined to suppress their spirits. Maite and Elvis are both dreamers of a sort, in love with music and stories and adventure, though their day-to-day existences could be not more disparate. Maite wants a more exciting life; she spends here days in a dull office job, is constantly reminded by her mother that she’ll never live up to her sister’s achievements, and loses herself in the romantic adventure tales she finds at the local newsstand. Elvis longs to escape the brutality of the paramilitary group he’s been roped into. When the case of a missing woman and an incriminating roll of film enters their lives, Maite and Elvis find themselves on a winding collision course, one that could open both their eyes to the ways in which their lives might change. As always, Moreno-Garcia couches all her riffs on genre conventions within a deeply ingrained sense of character. Before we can fully grasp the many angles of the tangled, noir-tinged web she’s weaving, we must first get to know Maite and Elvis and their different forms of ache and longing. Through precise, accessible yet poetic prose, these characters instantly come alive, and when they begin venturing into Mexico City’s darker corners, we are eager to follow them. The result is another triumph for one of genre fiction’s brightest voices, a book that will keep you up late into the night–not just for its intricate plotting but also for the two souls pulsing at its core.

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